When Sue’s Kitchen opened Aug. 30 in the historic Church Street Station building, a unique story came full circle. Previously located on Main Street, the original namesake restaurant was downtown’s hallmark eatery for a decade from 1984-1994.
The “Sue” in Sue’s Kitchen is Jonesboro native Sue Robinson Williams, but her son, John Williams, has been working at her side since boyhood. Though the current restaurant is his endeavor, her presence is felt both literally and figuratively.
“My start in catering was accidental,” Sue said with a twinkle in her eye, not bothered at all by the fact that her mobility now requires a wheelchair.
According to Sue, her entrée into the food preparation business began in 1967 when Dr. Ralph Joseph of Walnut Ridge asked a friend if he knew anyone who catered, and the friend said, ‘No, but I know someone who has talked about it.’ That someone was Sue.
“My husband said, ‘Okay. This is an opportunity to start without hanging out a shingle. You can see how you like it. I’ll help you.’ He was quite a cook, too.
That first party was a buffet for 250 people and their arrival was supposed to be staggered, but everyone came at the same time, she said with a chuckle.
The party helped launch Sue’s reputation as a caterer, and she found that she truly enjoyed the work. But in 1971, tragedy struck. Her husband John died, and their children, John and Lori, were just 9 and 4.
“When Daddy died we built a commercial kitchen onto our house,” John said. “I was just with her all the time, rolling sausage balls, baking cakes — whatever she had going on. Several ladies were always there helping us.”
In 1976, Sue became the manager of the dining room at Citizen’s Bank for Wally DeRoeck, who had close ties to Bill Clinton. The connection turned into a string of parties over the years that Sue catered for the famous couple. She has fond memories of the Clintons.
“Hillary said, ‘We had dinner at the White House last week, and your dinner was just as good.’ I have a letter from her to that effect,” Sue said.
“And I’ve served all the governors except Huckabee. I have had great opportunities to meet people over the years.”
Another highlight was cooking for Vincent Price, who spent a few days in Jonesboro in the early 1980s. He was so taken with Sue’s peanut butter pie that he persuaded her to give him the recipe.
“I had never given anyone that recipe before, but how do you say no to Vincent Price!” Sue said incredulously.
By the tender age of 14, with his mother busy running the bank dining room, John began to accept some catering jobs of his own. People would call to book with Sue, and she referred the clients to her already capable son.
“Mom drove me to the jobs — I wasn’t old enough to drive — and I would set up, serve and clean-up. I was 14-years-old with my own little business, earning my way in the world.”
At age 16, he coined the name Silver Service Catering for his business, and when he was just 19, John took a major entrepreneurial step, opening a fine French restaurant in 1982 called Le Banque, located in the historic bank building at 501 Union in downtown Jonesboro. The establishment was the first Jonesboro restaurant with a private club license, John said, and featured tuxedoed waiters and elegant dishes prepared tableside, such as Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster and Caesar Salad. The bank’s vault was a private dining room.
“I’ll bet we had 100 wedding proposals in that vault,” John said.
After three years, however, the family sold Le Banque to businessman Bill Hurt, owner of The 501.
Following the sale of Le Banque, John and Sue worked together in the first Sue’s Kitchen for a decade, before returning to catering (Expressly Sue’s Catering) from 1994-2005. John’s wife, Carrie, has also worked in the family businesses, and his sister, Lori Williams, was a server at Le Banque and dining room manager at Sue’s during high school and college. She is now executive vice president at Ralston Purina in St. Louis.
Prior to opening Sue’s Kitchen in August of this year, John spent several years with Ryan’s Restaurants in Jackson, Tenn., and Whiskey Creek in Paragould, gaining business management experience that he feels is invaluable.
What did Sue think of her son’s decision to re-open her namesake restaurant, complete with all the family recipes?
“I was stunned, but as I thought about it I was excited,” Sue said as she bagged wild rice in the restaurant’s gourmet shop. “Especially with no set responsibilities for me. There are a lot of things I can do to help from this chair.”
John said that as he began to talk with people in the community about his idea, the positive feedback was very encouraging.
“When I started talking to my wife about this, we had lots of late nights of discussion — lots of prayers. It’s where we’ve been led to go and where we hope to be for a long time — until my son takes over,” he said with the same twinkle in his eye as his mother.